This past year was a long one for singer-songwriter Jason Isbell to say the least. He spent two weeks in Nashville’s alcohol-and-drug treatment center, Cumberland Heights, won best Americana Song of the Year from the Americana Music Association for his single “Alabama Pines” and started writing what many critics cite as his best album yet. Now, more than a year later, the ex-“Truck Driver” is touring the country making a stronger, and for the first time sober, comeback.
Southeastern is song driven, and, compared to the older stuff, it’s a little more acoustic-based,” says Isbell. “The album is a record of events, that’s what I try to do when I make an album; I try to record where my life is at a certain point of time.” Isbell’s fourth studio album, Southeastern was released in June of 2013 and is a follow up of his 2011 release, Here We Rest. The album’s soulful set of ballads has received rave reviews by critics since its debut, even receiving a three and a half star rating from Rolling Stone magazine.
“I write about anything that interests me — sometimes relationships, sometimes death, sometimes trust. Inspiration is easy if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, it’s always there,” says Isbell. “The motivation to write it is the part that people have a hard time with sometimes. Inspiration isn’t really hard to find, it’s just doing the actual work that trips people up sometimes.” Isbell’s raw emotions can clearly be heard throughout his latest offering. The artist sings of bar scenes and breakups portrayed through poetic melodies. Emotion, ranging from lovelorn loneliness to a solemn feeling of hope that mirrors Isbell’s recent journey of recovery, can be heard ringing throughout the album’s tracks. Isbell notes “Elephant,” “Traveling Alone” and “Cover Me Up” as some of his standout recordings. “Right now, I’m enjoying the new material a whole lot, the songs off the new record have really been resonating with people, and the crowd reacts really well, which is a really nice feeling,” says Isbell.
Along with being a solo artist, Isbell has written songs, belted out tunes and played guitar with a number of groups, including his old act Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and The Drive-By Truckers, an alt-country based in Athens, Ga. From 2001 to 2007, Isbell was a primary song writer in The Drive-By Truckers, writing some of the bands most notable tunes, including the title track from the band’s 2003 release, Decoration Day.
Isbell has gained national recognition over his past 12 years as a singer and songwriter. This year, he has performed on The Late Show with David Letterman and Conan, as well as being interviewed on nationally recognized public-radio talk show Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Rolling Stone and Billboard.
Isbell says that Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have been a major inspiration in helping him develop his signature heartfelt style of songwriting that has spoken to thousands of people across the country. “I really try to let the songs speak for themselves, but I don’t think about what people think of my songs too much. I guess if there is something they can relate them to in their personal lives, that’s really important to me,” says Isbell. “It’s just another way of communicating; it’s a way for me to explain myself to me and to the listeners. If they can recognize something in the song to their own daily life that is about the best I can hope for.”
Isbell, a proud native of Green Hill, Ala., makes many references to the South in his new album, as well as his previous releases, and credits his heritage as a major influence in his songwriting. “I don’t think I’d be the same musician if I was from anywhere else. I write about things that I know and I’m a Southern person, the region tends to find its way into the music I make,” says Isbell. “I think your interests are different depending on how and where you grow up. I’m from the South, so I know more about that way of life as opposed to any other place.”
Averaging at a couple hundred shows a year, the 34-year-old frontman has spent most of his adult life on the road playing music across the country, and most of the world, touring with the likes of rocker Ryan Adams and many others over the course of his 12-year touring career. “Touring is a job, if you want to be successful at it you have to look at it like it’s a job. The actual time you spend on stage is the reward you get from constantly traveling, being away from your family and dealing with all the logistics of the whole tour,” says Isbell. “I still enjoy being on stage as much as I ever have, that has never really been work for me, but the traveling aspects can be hard.”
Isbell’s 2013 tour, which is in support of his new album, has a unique opening act in singer and violinist Amanda Shires, who earlier this year also became Isbell’s wife. “It’s been a nice treat. She has a record out that’s really good, and it’s just great to be out on the road with my wife,” says Isbell. Along with touring with his wife and perfecting a fresh batch of songs off his new record, Isbell also played at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which is a first and a personal honor for the musician, to a sold out crowd of 2,200 people. “People call it the Mother Church of Country Music, even though they still have a lot of rock shows there,” says Isbell of the legendary venue. “It was really special, that room means a lot to a lot of people. The place sounded great, looked great — you just feel good when you’re in it.”
So far, Isbell says that this has been one of his best tours yet and he’s gained some cherished memories along the way. This month, Isbell continues his tour throughout Europe.
Arts & Culture | Music | November 2013
Through Thick and Thin
Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell keeps on truckin’ with much praise for his breakout solo album, Southeastern.
Story by Samuel Prager